Belief—the first key to blended-learning success

July 27, 2017 | by Thomas Arnett


In the fall of 2014, Mallory Mattivi, a seventh-grade English language arts and world history teacher at Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, Colorado, took a leap that radically transformed her teaching. When her principal, Jon Cooney, began encouraging ambitious blended learning initiatives across her school, she felt tentative. She thought blended learning made sense for math classes, but that ELA was more centered around reading together, having class discussions, and thinking in groups—activities that she believed wouldn’t work as well in smaller groups. But with Cooney’s support, she started experimenting with blended learning and iterating on her classroom model. By the end of the 2016-2017 school year, she gave her students teacher-led, whole-class instruction on average only one day every two weeks. Instead, she dedicated most of their classroom time to collaborating on projects, learning online through content playlists, and meeting with her individually or in small groups.

In our recent case study, “Blended (r)evolution,” my colleagues Clifford Maxwell and Jenny White document how Mattivi and four other teachers’ in Greeley and Washington, D.C. evolved their approaches to blended learning over time to better target their students’ individual learning needs. As we consider how best to scale practices like theirs more broadly across the K–12 education sector, what can we learn from their examples about motivating teachers to embrace change?

Unpacking motivation research

Research on motivation theory shows that the motivation to change hinges on two components. First, motivation to change depends on how much a person believes in the subjective value of the change. In other words, does pursuing a given change solve a key problem or overcome an important challenge that the person cares about? Second, motivation depends on how much a person believes in her efficacy to make the change happen. In other words, is there a clear method, process, or system for making the change that has proven to work in other instances, and does the person believe she can execute that method, process, or system successfully?

Without these two components, motivation never gets off the ground. No one pursues a change if he doesn’t believe it has value, or if he doesn’t believe in his ability to make it happen.

Is seeing really believing?

We can see these principles of motivation in Mattivi’s story and the stories of the four other teachers profiled in the case study. Mattivi’s initial belief in the value of blended learning came from the visionary leadership of her principal. She then found her sense of efficacy to affect change with the support of consultants from Education Elements. The consultants brought blended learning expertise, which likely helped Mattivi and other teachers feel confidence in the approaches they suggested. But the consultants also helped Mattivi design her own classroom, which allowed her to address one of her main efficacy concerns—the challenge of teaching and managing stations simultaneously—by creating a blended learning plan that minimized the demands the model placed on her during the first year of implementation. Later, after Mattivi’s initial model was up and working, her principal’s emphasis on certain core practices—student agency, tight feedback loops, targeted instruction, and peer-to-peer interaction—helped her stay motivated to continually refine her model to better serve her students.

For Mattivi’s colleague, fourth-grade math teacher Angela Jones, the motivation to adopt blended learning also stemmed from coming to believe that blended learning was both valuable and attainable. Jones’ initial belief in the value of blended learning stemmed from her prior efforts to personalize learning for her students using differentiated paper-based worksheets. That experience convinced her of the value of personalized learning, but she found her ability to personalize hit a ceiling without the help of technology. Her belief in the value of blended learning grew when she saw how the Bella Romero school leaders’ excitement for blended learning spread throughout the school staff. Then, when the time came for her to launch her initial blended learning model, her prior experience with personalized learning—combined with the straightforward nature of the blended learning model she and her colleagues selected—gave her the sense of efficacy she needed to tackle new approaches to teaching.

For the D.C. teachers profiled in the paper, motivation to change pivoted on school visits that opened their eyes to new approaches. Diane Johnson, Milton Bryant, and Kaila Ramsey were all early adopters who launched Station Rotation models as their initial forays into blended learning. Like many teachers, they found the Station Rotation model offered an easy path to a sense of efficacy because of its similarity to the well-established traditional practice of classroom centers. But as they became comfortable with the basic Station Rotation model, all three found that it had some clear limitations in customizing learning to students’ individual needs.

Fortunately, these three teachers were all selected for the Education Innovation Fellowship offered through the DC-based CityBridge Foundation and the national non-profit, NewSchools Venture Fund. As part of the Fellowship, each teacher had opportunities to visit other blended learning schools around the country. The innovative practices that they observed during these visits were crucial experiences for helping these teachers see the subjective value of making drastic and difficult modifications to their own blended learning approaches. Seeing blended learning in action at other schools also gave them a leg up in understanding the routines and procedures they would need to adopt in order to be effective in changing their models.

Together, the examples of these five teachers provide a microcosm of how mindsets can change. Their stories offer key insights for other systems hoping to help teachers adopt blended learning at scale. The motivation to adopt blended learning always starts with twin beliefs: belief in the value that blended learning has to offer and belief that it can work.

To manage change, leaders shouldn’t try to short circuit teacher motivation. Before they buy devices, license software, and schedule professional development workshops, school leaders need to help teachers see blended learning as something they can believe in and something they can do.

This piece was originally posted on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.